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Dems vow rules overhaul to empower members if House flips

Dems vow rules overhaul to empower members if House flips
© Greg Nash

Should they take back the House in November, Democrats are vowing not only a shift in legislative priorities and much stronger White House oversight, but also rules changes on how the chamber is run.

House GOP leaders this year hit a dubious milestone when they broke the single-cycle record for reporting closed rules — the procedural step barring lawmakers from amending bills when they hit the floor.

In the eyes of Democrats, and a growing number of Republicans, the distinction highlights a disturbing creep toward top-down legislating that’s stifled debate, paralyzed rank-and-file members and thwarted the “more inclusive” process Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanElection hacking will come to a ‘breaking point,’ says Dem strategist Webb: GOP must play prevent defense The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — George H.W. Bush lies in state | NRCC suffers major hack | Crunch-time for Congress MORE (R-Wis.) promised when he took the gavel three years ago.

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Vowing to reverse the trend, Democrats are weighing a host of changes to House guidelines if they capture the chamber in the midterm elections. Although draped in the esoteric procedures of the House Rules Committee, Democrats say their goal is simple: To break the partisan gridlock and usher in a new era of lawmaker empowerment.

“The Rules Committee has become the place where democracy goes to die. We have a system that’s rigged — it’s purposefully designed to shut out ideas that Republicans don’t like and can’t beat,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), who’s in line to take the Rules gavel if the House flips, said by phone.

“For the sake of bringing some integrity back to the institution, we need to do things differently,” he continued. “It means we’re going to have to have a more accommodating process where we give more members a voice, including members who have some ideas that we may not like.”

To launch the debate early, Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiDisputed North Carolina race raises prospect of congressional probe The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by T-Mobile — The political currents that will drive the shutdown showdown Kobach ‘very concerned’ voter fraud may have happened in North Carolina MORE (D-Calif.) is encouraging members to submit reform suggestions to McGovern and the other Democrats on the Rules panel. The goal, she said, is to foster a process “of civility, fairness and transparency.”

“As we move toward a more Democratic Congress, we promise a more democratic Congress,” she wrote to her troops heading into the August recess.

Members of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus are ahead of the curve, proposing a slate of 10 rules changes that’s getting a good deal of attention from leaders of both parties. Central to their reforms is a proposal requiring a supermajority vote — three-fifths of the House — to pass any legislation brought to the floor under a closed rule, and another ensuring fast-track consideration of any bill co-sponsored by at least two-thirds of the chamber.

A third recommendation from the Problem Solvers Caucus — a group of 48 lawmakers, split evenly between the parties — would raise the bar for ousting a sitting Speaker by requiring one-third of the House to publicly support such a motion. Supporters say that change would prevent a small group of detractors from using threats to “vacate the chair” as a bludgeon to keep certain bills — even popular bipartisan ones — from being considered, as the far-right House Freedom Caucus has done under both Ryan and his predecessor, John BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerThree Republicans battle to succeed Meadows at House Freedom Caucus What insurgent Dems can learn from the Democratic Study Group Feehery: 5 reasons Pelosi should be Speaker MORE (R-Ohio).

“It allows a small faction to hold the Speaker hostage,” Rep. Josh GottheimerJoshua (Josh) GottheimerReconstruction redux Dems play ‘Let’s make a deal’ with Nancy Pelosi Problem Solvers Dems urge Pelosi to publicly back three rules changes MORE (D-N.J.), one of two co-chairmen of the Problem Solvers group, told The Hill. “It just leads to mass dysfunction.”

Outside groups are lending some heft to the effort. No Labels, a bipartisan government reform organization, has launched “The Speakers Project,” which aims to break the partisan logjam by changing House rules to require, among other things, that the incoming Speaker receive bipartisan support in order to win the gavel — an unheard of dynamic in modern times. The rules vote next January, the group argues, “presents a remarkable opportunity for a handful of reform-minded members to jolt the sclerotic House out of its torpor.”

McGovern said the rules recommendations are still filtering in — in a conference call with Democrats last week he gave his colleagues a Sept. 7 submission deadline — and there’s no expectation that a final package will emerge before the elections, not least because the outcome remains unknowable.

Still, several reform proposals seem to be rising to the top of the list. One, which would bar lawmakers from sitting on corporate boards, is designed to curb conflicts of interest following this month’s arrest of Rep. Chris CollinsChristopher (Chris) Carl CollinsGM layoffs show Congress played Americans with corporate tax cut Election Countdown: Florida Senate race heads to hand recount | Dem flips Maine House seat | New 2020 trend - the 'friend-raiser' | Ad war intensifies in Mississippi runoff | Blue wave batters California GOP Election Countdown: Lawsuits fly in Florida recount fight | Nelson pushes to extend deadline | Judge says Georgia county violated Civil Rights Act | Biden, Sanders lead 2020 Dem field in poll | Bloomberg to decide on 2020 by February MORE (R-N.Y.), who’s been charged with insider trading while he was a board member of an Australian pharmaceutical company.

A second proposal would empower House delegates to vote on bills considered when the chamber meets as the committee of the whole — a parliamentary device used to expedite legislation through the chamber. The Democrats have granted the delegates that power when they’ve controlled the House in the past, most recently under Pelosi’s Speakership between 2007 and 2011. Republicans have stripped it away each time they’ve taken the gavel.

The change is primarily symbolic: delegates, even under the Democrats’ rules, could not be the deciding vote on any bill. But supporters say the adjustment would allow delegates to be more representative of their constituents.

“We regard it as a down payment on full voting rights,” Washington, D.C., Del. Eleanor Holmes NortonEleanor Holmes NortonDC agency apologizes for asking out-of-town couple seeking marriage license to prove New Mexico is a state Pelosi and Dems played voters for chumps — again The Hill's Morning Report — Sponsored by Better Medicare Alliance — Steady Kavanaugh proves to be a tough target for Democrats MORE (D) told The Hill.

Democrats are also eyeing the installation of pay-as-you-go rules, designed to rein in deficit spending, which were also in place when they last held power.

The rules debate has simmered for several years, escalating in 2015 when Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsComey’s confession: dossier not verified before, or after, FISA warrant GOP, Comey have tense day — with promise of a second date Meadows says 'too early to tell' if special House election should be held in North Carolina MORE (R-N.C.), now the Freedom Caucus chairman, threatened a vote to topple BoehnerJohn Andrew BoehnerThree Republicans battle to succeed Meadows at House Freedom Caucus What insurgent Dems can learn from the Democratic Study Group Feehery: 5 reasons Pelosi should be Speaker MORE, who had taken the gavel with promises to open the floor and “welcome the battle of ideas.” Meadows’s resolution charged that the opposite had occurred, accusing Boehner of trying to “consolidate power and centralize decisionmaking.”

Instead of risking a nasty intraparty fight, Boehner resigned within weeks.

Ryan, who also took the gavel vowing a “more participatory” process, has since heard similar complaints, which crescendoed in May when the Rules Committee reported its 84th closed rule, breaking the record set by Boehner four years earlier. The number has since jumped to 95.

Republicans, behind Rules Chairman Pete SessionsPeter Anderson SessionsAdvocates see state legislatures as next frontier for pot legalization GOP struggles to find right Republican for Rules The Hill’s 12:30 Report — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Trump says Cohen should go to jail | Nation prepares for Bush 41 funeral | Congress delays votes MORE (R-Texas), contend the figures are misleading, pointing to the more than 1,000 amendments they’ve allowed to proceed this cycle. But Democrats are unmoved, noting that no bills have been reported under an open rule all Congress long, while popular bipartisan proposals tackling issues like immigration and prescription drug costs have been shelved altogether.

“I feel like we’re living in an authoritarian regime,” McGovern said.

Sessions’s office did not respond to several requests for comment.

Democratic leaders, for their part, are no strangers to charges of top-down governing. Pelosi, when she held the gavel, was hammered — largely by Republicans — with charges that she ran the chamber out of the Speaker’s office. And while McGovern defended Pelosi as much more inclusive than the current Republicans, he also suggested that the changes now under consideration would take lessons from that era.

“I’m not here to say that when Democrats were in control, they ran everything perfectly,” he said. “Part of what we’re trying to do is make sure that more members are part of the process.”

Democrats urging more legislative openness may face blowback from their liberal base, which is energized against President TrumpDonald John TrumpJoaquín Castro: Trump would be 'in court right now' if he weren't the president or 'privileged' Trump flubs speech location at criminal justice conference Comey reveals new details on Russia probe during House testimony MORE and would look to a newly empowered Democratic majority to fight fiercely for a progressive agenda. Those voices may pressure party leaders to revert to Republican tactics for the sake of passing preferred policy items.

Gottheimer, however, dismissed those potential tensions, arguing that the elections will likely give voice to moderate voters — a group he calls “the silent middle” — eager for more cooperation on Capitol Hill.

“I don’t think anyone should kowtow to the extremes on either side,” he said.

McGovern echoed that message, saying Democrats can be successful without ramming legislation through the chamber.

“We would make a terrible mistake if we mimic their behavior,” he said.

“I have a lot things I want to see done in terms of policy initiatives, and I’m going to fight like hell, if we win, to see them enacted,” he added. “But victories on those issues are more legitimate if there’s a fair process.”